By Will Nixon
One river on Champion lands makes the serious paddler’s heart beat like no other: the South Branch of the Grass. It flows for 40 miles from the Massawepie Mire to the Adirondack Blue Line, passing through the paper company’s property along the Tooley Pond Road in the northwestern corner of the park. “The South Branch of the Grass is my favorite river from Georgia to Maine,” says Paul Fischer, a Canton attorney who, in his twenties, worked as a professional river guide. To show me why this is his favorite, he and his 11-year-old son, Ethan, meet me one Sunday morning at a steel-grated bridge over a placid bend in the river dominated by alder thickets with scattered cedars.
Known as a “pool and drop” river, the South Branch calmly meanders between raised banks giving way to meadows of ferns and grasses, then plunges down some of the more dramatic waterfalls in the park. For now, only serious kayakers like Fischer have paddled the South Branch after receiving permission from the local hunting and fishing club. The access problem for amateur canoeists like me is much greater, as we would need to do considerable trespassing on the banks to portage open boats around the falls. But Fischer has decided to show me what he can from a canoe.
He dresses me in a wetsuit and neoprene boots, a yellow rain parka, and an orange life jacket, until I feel like a colorfully padded punching bag. He also suggests that I bring my canteen filled with tap water in case I get thirsty. “I drink the river,” he says. “But I’ve been doing it all my life.”
Fischer, in his early forties with pewter-gray hair, remains a strapping athlete built much like a crew oarsman. I discover that he trots through the riverbank ferns with a canoe on his head faster than I can walk to keep up. We put in on the South Branch downstream of Flat Rock Falls and paddle against the surprisingly strong current that flows with natural tannin after steeping in the boreal wetlands of the Massawepie Mire. The banks, heavily buffered with grassy tufts and bushes, stretch well back to an open forest of black cherry trees that seems like a woodland park. “This place has more deer than anywhere I’ve been except New Jersey,” Fischer says. But this terrain would also make the South Branch one of the best canoe camping routes in the Adirondacks, if the state buys this river corridor.
After half-an-hour of paddling upstream, we round a bend into the pool below Flat Rock Falls. Until now, I had pictured white-water paddling as a sort of frothy bumper-car ride in which the boats dodged the biggest rocks while bouncing through waves and gaps in the rapids. But Fischer guides us around the pool, avoiding the stronger current in the middle that pushes sudsy air bubbles. I realize that someone paddling down the falls in a kayak would be sledding down a rocky slope on a rushing avalanche of water. For a seasoned paddler, Fischer reassures me, this adventure is not as crazy as it looks. “These rocks are very forgiving,” he says. Smoothed by eons of rushing water, the pink granite generally slopes downwards like the worn edges of old stone steps, as the Canadian shield of the Adirondack plateau gradually descends into the St. Lawrence River Valley. “The first time, my knees were knocking just from looking at the waterfalls on the South Branch, but they turned out to be very manageable,” he says.
After paddling downstream, surprising swamp sparrows that burst from the grassy hummocks on the banks, we round a bend and hear Twin Falls ahead. “This is where you would start feeling a thumping in your throat,” Fischer says. We can’t see the waterfalls from above, of course, but we certainly spot the horizon line, where the river could be dropping off the edge of a cliff. And a little water spout keeps peaking above the glassy horizon like a white rabbit watching us approach. We pull ashore on the wooded island that separates the two falls and portage down a short, but steep, hillside to the bottom pool.
There we find John and Mary Dolan sitting on a driftwood tree trunk by the rocky beach, enjoying a picnic lunch of deli sandwiches. A bass fisherman with a gray ponytail, John Dolan first joined the Twin Falls Club, which leases this land from Champion, in the 1970s. The club’s green camp buildings were built for loggers a century ago, while the club itself dates back to the 1940s. Dolan’s two sons have now joined and his grandchildren have even stayed at the camp. Although most members cast for trout in the South Branch, he prefers to take a boat onto Tooley Pond and fish for bass. “I grew up in the Bronx, where you could always find a bass pond, even if the fish glowed in the dark,” he says. For him, the prospect of Champion selling this river corridor to New York state is grim news. “As a club member, I would find it a disaster,” he says. He believes the public would fish-out the waterways, trample paths along the river banks, and scatter litter over this idyllic reserve.
Fischer and I paddle across the pool to admire the wide falls tumbling down steep rocks like a postcard scene. The bottom of the falls drops like a dam. I can’t imagine a kayaker trying these falls, but they do. “It’s more of a party stunt,” Fischer says, having no desire to try it himself. The kayaker plundges off the top of the falls into upward gushing water known as a rooster tail that launches him into the pool. The risk, says Fischer, is landing wrong and crushing a few vertebrae. So we float at the edge of the waterfall spray and simply enjoy the power of the gushing.
Then, looking down stream, Fischer spots a fawn suckling under its mother’s chest, creating the illusion of an eight legged deer. “I’ve never seen that before,” he says, obviously touched. “You must have arranged this moment with Walt Disney Productions. “
But I hadn’t. Its a moment that money can’t buy–though it happens on a river that New York State may purchase for everyone.